On With The Show

There's no biz that can't be promoted through showbiz.

Chances are, you were raised on TV. You think of Mike Brady as your father figure and you have memories of being stranded on an island with seven lunatic castaways. So it shouldn't be a surprise if you've considered expanding your business--into show business.

You're not alone. Martha Stewart, with her billion-dollar self-named business, isn't the only entrepreneur to go Hollywood. Take the Generation Xer who went from throwing dinner parties and selling antiques to hosting Lifetime's Next Door With Katie Brown. Or flip over to E! Entertainment and catch Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic, a decorating show that grew out of a store stocked with refurbished furniture.

Succeeding in particular are entrepreneurs who have how-to skills and a flair for the visual. TV has been very good to two Philadelphia furniture refurbishers and wiseacres, Ed Feldman, 46, and Joe L'Erario, 45. Their shows, Furniture to Go and Men in Tool Belts, are fixtures on The Learning Channel.

"The fame is the base," says Feldman. "My salary for doing the show is less than 50 percent of my total salary, but the constant exposure allows me to make the other choices."

Other choices, indeed. Known primarily as the Furniture Guys, Feldman and L'Erario use their Web site (http://www.furnitureguys.com) to hawk the shows, their national radio program and a book, as well as Furniture Guys T-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, hats, touch-up wood markers and, of course, Furniture Guys Official Citristrip Stripping Kit. Altogether, about $1.2 million in annual sales.

Other entrepreneurs have been equally successful in stretching their shows onto store shelves. You can order workbooks from the host of The Christopher Lowell Show on the Discovery Channel. In 2001, you'll be able to find Christopher Lowell's line of paints, which Lowell, 44, aims at women, in grocery stores or read his decorating magazine, You Can Do It. And Lowell's Web site receives two mil-lion hits a month.

Colin Cowie is another telepreneur spreading his name around. He hosts Everyday Elegance with Colin Cowie on American Movie Classics' Romance Classics, organizes extravagant weddings, writes books (Colin Cowie's Weddings, Little Brown; and Effortless Entertaining with Colin Cowie, HarperCollins), and has been a contributing editor for In Style, Eating Well and Honeymoon magazines.

But an entrepreneurial showbiz whiz has to start somewhere. Feldman had a small business fixing furniture for stores, while L'Erario owned a refinishing studio. Lowell was a lighting and costuming designer on Broadway who later opened a Hallmark store in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and then ran an interior design center in Solon, Ohio, teaching more than 3,000 students the art of dressing up a down room. Cowie, 38, owns a Los Angeles-based lifestyle business. Like many television viewers, these entrepreneurs believed there was nothing good on TV.

"We watched the Bob Vilas of the world sell out," says Lowell, of the handyman TV host, "and we watched Martha ramming product down your throat for the last two years."

Says Feldman, "I realized the how-to shows on TV don't teach anything the average person would ever use." Feldman wondered who wanted to watch "some phony hosts who pretend to do work their team of contractors is doing while you're not watching."

Meanwhile, Cowie wasn't watching TV as much as he was avoiding being on it. A slew of cable channels gave him offers, "but they were Mickey Mouse how-to shows with an $18,000 budget. We spend $18,000 to edit [Everyday Elegance]," sniffs Cowie, whose show costs about $70,000 per episode.

How to get noticed? Cowie threw parties for celebrities and was a guest on talk shows. Feldman and L'Erario's local PBS station let them run three-minute spots between shows before they got their own program. And Lowell spent $100,000 filming his lectures and editing them into a pilot.

But it isn't easy to make it. Says Lowell, "Being entertaining is the number-one ingredient. Nobody wants to watch your glue gun warm up."

And once you're on television, your job of marketing your business has only just begun. Cowie reports that his day starts at 5 a.m., talking to East Coast vendors and that he finishes work about midnight. "Keep your day job," is his advice.

"Television and business do not necessarily work; they collide, actually," says Lowell. "I negotiate all my relationships with vendors and trade-outs. I handle all of my viewer mail. I control the input and output that's central to my show."

Holding on to your own vision is crucial from the moment you pitch your idea, advises Feldman. "Don't think about what the executives might want to hear. Be yourself."

Then maybe you'll have memories from real life, instead of episodes of from Friends and Ally McBeal. Because if you land your own TV show, you may never have time to watch television again.

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to Entrepreneur. He was on national television once, as an ill-fated guest on The Love Connection.

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the March 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: On With The Show.

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